I want to peel back the curtain on one of the most difficult questions I have to answer in my job.
Marriage counseling is unique among the therapeutic disciplines. It is the only discipline in which a large number of clients are not certain whether the relationship will outlast the therapy. Not always, but frequently, relationships are quite literally on the line.
Should we get divorced?
The prevailing attitude about this question in training programs across the country is that therapists should not get involved. There's too much at risk. We have too much power one way or another to lend our beliefs to a question that means so much to those asking it.
Rather, we teach our students to cloak their rhetoric in neutrality. Bill Doherty, a renowned couples therapist and couples therapy critic, suggests that although this appears to be an unbiased sheep, it is actually a value-laden wolf that can have ferocious outcomes for a marriage in distress.
What should I do?
I am the product of a very successful blended family, one which was preceded both my mother and (step)father's divorces. Were it not for those divorces, I would not be who I am. Because of this, I know that adults can rebuild healthy post-divorce lives.
In this blog, the marriages I'm interested in are those that experience chronic conflict in the absence of violence or other deal-breakers.
These are the couples with whom I spend the majority of my time, trying to answer the question of whether to stay or go. As a therapeutic community, we have a lot of opinions about this issue.
While we are quick to retreat behind the safeguard of neutrality when the question comes up, we usually have no problem disclosing cliches like this one on the path to a risk management approach to making a decision:
You shouldn't stay together just for your kids.
This is one of the most insidious statements anyone can tell a couple thinking about divorce.
Remember your wedding? Who was there? Who cared that you got married? Who called you? Who sent you flowers? Who gave you presents?
It is time to do away with the myth that divorce only matters to those who sign on the dotted line. Just as you surrounded yourself by a community of loved ones when you said your vows, you should consult that same community when you are deciding whether to end them.
Not only should you consider staying together for your kids, but for your families, your friends, your communities, and yourselves.
The problem with the belief that children really shouldn't be a major factor when deciding on divorce, is that it assumes the highest ethic to consider when it comes to divorce is that of individual satisfaction.
also, however, it is the belief of those who have lost hope, something for which I have great compassion.
It is a natural belief for couples in distressed relationships, but I am utterly perplexed by couple's therapists who know the implications of separation and divorce.
Some of the loudest voices in the relationship expert community frame this discussion in the context of "hopeless relationships." If it has been so bad for so long, then it obviously cannot last. I've seen too much resilience, and I've been surprised by too many couples to believe this.
The issue is not whether children should be a factor in preserving relationships, but whether relationships can be preserved at all.
Sometimes they can't be. I have counseled people to seek separation when their personal safety and health were on the line. But for those whose marriages are mired in conflict (the ones that my community so readily casts aside as hopeless), my approach as a therapist is simple:
I help couples find ways to improve and thrive in restored marriages.
When couples ask me my values about divorce, I tell them. Why would I want to hide behind a neutrality veil that I think is a curtain? I want couples to be empowered consumers. I want them to decide for themselves what kind of treatment they seek, rather than be left guessing at what's behind the veil.
I value restoration where divorce is preventable.
Divorces that could be prevented are so highly correlated with innumerable health risks for both adults and children, why wouldn't I seek to help couples remain together if I believed they could thrive in their marriages?
Research by sociologist Linda Waite reveals that in preventable nonviolent divorces, separation does not lead to increased happiness following adjustment. Rather, staying married generally increases happiness, financial health, and improves emotional well-being.
This is the same reason I strongly support marriage equality. The lack of access to marital benefits for gay and lesbian couples is extremely harmful to this community's mental and relational health.
There are exceptions. Those who never seek help, but stay together without attending to their relational needs are like those who experience an illness without seeking help . Everyone suffers for it.
Therapy doesn't always prevent divorce.
In these cases, my job is to take a nonjudgmental approach to helping couples transition to become excellent co-parents (another possibility we generally believe can't happen). This is a job I love to do.
Parents can establish highly communicative and proactive parenting relationships that place children at the center of a network of care and compassion, which reflects another value I uphold as a therapist.
I did not become a couple's therapist to support the guise of neutrality.
Neutrality might be safer for me, but it is hazardous to those I serve. Not because it is wrong, but because for me, it is inauthentic, and I believe that my authenticity is a resource to my clients.
The space in which I work is sacred to me. It is an environment in which I am asked to make sense of stories riddled with expectation and pain, stories that take on new life with the desire that something positive will result better than it was before.
I am not neutral about this, but I am hopeful.
Will you stay or go?
If you're asking this question, you've got a lot on the line. Seek someone who will be both authentic and compassionate toward your uncertainty. You may be surprised by what you discover.